After another data processing day, Karl and Cindy planned a low-tide excursion to the tidepools out by the Bundegi mangroves. On our way through town I looked for other good photo-ops, but Exmouth is not an easy place to photograph.

Because the terrain is relatively flat and unoccupied, the lines of the road are wide and straight, with street lights and telephone poles stretching with impunity through town and out into the bush. Paved and dirt roads divide the spider-webbed shrubs and emus with their chicks cross boldly in front of cars. Kangaroos appear to be less lucky with the crossings, as evidenced by the orphaned joeys we met last week and the roadside remains we pass daily en route to our boat ramps.


Out on the road Australians wave to one another, each driving his or her own white truck trailered to his or her own white boat. It’s very interesting walking the neighborhood in the evenings- the houses are colorful or drab, clean or dingy, landscaped or bare- but nearly everyone has a truck or “ute” (utility vehicle) of some kind, and a boat parked out front or in a shed around the side of the house. You’d be crazy not to, Tim says, in an area as rich in interesting sea life as the North West Cape and Ningaloo Reef. It’s certainly a life that agrees with us, or did when we were out on the water a few days ago:


Anyways, out at the low tide we saw a tiny nudibranch, some hairy crabs and a blue swimming crab, and of course our friends the brain-footed (cephalopod) octopuses. We’re still pretty sure these aren’t blue-ringed, due to the lack of… blue rings… but they look like pretty effective predators even lacking the potent venom as they crawl through tide pools and flush little fish from their hiding places. Few things are as fun to watch as a hunting octopus, and if you stay still and quiet enough they go about their business as if you weren’t there. They swell and stretch, by turns delicate and strong, prodding and sweeping and peering around in shallow puddles. There isn’t a straight line in their bodies, nor do they search in grids like humans draw across maps of the cape, but they master their environment more completely than any creature I’ve seen.


By Any Other Name

Scientific names are very important- not only are they identifiers for different species that simultaneously differentiate groups and unify them under larger categories, but they also tend to provide some information about that species, even if the information is the name of a researcher who did seminal work in the area, or that Stephen Colbert is awesome (see Aptostichus stephencolberti and Agaporomorphus colberti, a spider and a beetle respectively named for the comedian).

For instance, upon seeing and naming this new friend:IMG_0662

I can be sure that she’s a relative to someone that long-time Agent Red Squirrel readers might recognize. Nephila clavipes was my research subject in Corcovado, Costa Rica, which is why her legs, which look like the graceful result of some dreadful hair-growing (or hair-shaving) experiments, are so familiar. This lady here is a large female Nephila edulis, which translates roughly to “edible spider who is fond of spinning,” which is illuminating if not entirely explanatory or comforting to the Western palate.

The dolphins I’ll be studying here have been, until I think today, actually, been officially known as Sousa chinensis, but have acquired independence from their northerly cousins and become recognized as Sousa sahulensis. Though not named after me, as they should have been, S. sahulensis do gain potential protection due to their smaller numbers, which brings me to my point: S. chinensis, S. chinensis, wherefore are you S. chinensis? For a research project by any other name would be as wicked sweet.Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 12.25.46 AM



The Myth, the Mystery, the Marsupial

Having seen, since I got here, several road-killed kangaroos and several packages of kangaroo steaks, I decided it was about time I saw a live kangaroo. Armed with the knowledge that they come out around sundown, I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my camera, and headed for the nearest scrubby area.


As the sun went down I walked out between the low eucalyptus and yellow grasses. It’s winter here, edging perhaps into spring, and many of the plants are in bloom before the heat comes back (as I’m here it will only get warmer, from temperate weather now up into the 90s probably).IMG_0598

I spotted a few birds the other day and finally got a photo today- they’re crested pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes), commonly seen across mainland Australia except for the very tropical regions. Are they actually more colorful than their northern hemisphere cousins, or am I just used to the other ones?

Crested pigeon

Crested pigeon

I don’t think bougainvillea is native here, but along with plumeria and palm trees it makes up the majority of landscaping in the area. At one edge of the scrub I was wandering through, the pink leaves and tiny flowers were visited by what I thought might be a hummingbird, but turned out in fact to be a hummingbird-shaped moth with a plump little body, dark eyes, stubby antennae, and a blur of wings.

Hawk moth at a bougainvillea

Hawk moth at a bougainvillea

By then, the sun had set and I had still seen no ‘roos. The myth, the mystery, the marsupial: they remain elusive to me though I’m not worried. I’ve got three months to find myself some live ones and try not to hit them with cars. Perhaps tomorrow will be my lucky day, as we’ll be headed out across the cape to Tantabiddi and will have to drive back with the boat around sunset.

I snagged a eucalyptus leaf on my way back in. They’re actually native here, but have engrained themselves into the California landscape so ubiquitously that I associate giant striped-bark trunks and the spicy smell of their oil with home. If you’re at home, gentle readers, take a deep breath. Non-native trees may be ecologically questionable in California, but I’m grateful for the familiarity now.

Eucalypts are endemic to Australia... except that they appear to grow very well in California

Eucalypts are endemic to Australia… except that they appear to grow very well in California


Ensconced at last in Casa de Sousa

G’day, dear readers! I’m writing you, finally, from Exmouth, Western Australia! I arrived here yesterday morning, settled my stuff into the house, and hit the water on the Team Sousa boat for my first survey effort. But I’ll talk more about that stuff later when I’m not quite so pooped.

For now, here’s a quick summary of my journey here:
After lovely brunchy dumplings with the family, we headed for the airport and unloaded my bags. I waved goodbye to my parents (on their own for at least a week- how novel!) and sat around, as one does in airports. The first leg of the flight took me from San Francisco to Seoul, where I posted a Facebook update and re-boarded the same plane to Singapore. In Changi Airport in Singapore I languished for seventeen hours, which is frankly a bizarre amount of time for a layover- from 2 am until 7 pm I had to try (and for the most part fail) to sleep in the quietest chairs I could find, amuse myself in the enormous shopping sections of the three terminals, re-read the documents for our field research, and take the most boring city tour to have ever lulled tourists into unexpected naps. In the process of becoming intimately familiar with Changi Airport, however, I realized the genius in their marketing strategy. Every photo, as evidenced below, will be of the flowers, butterfly garden, koi ponds, or statuary, causing people to recall their airport experience as actually pleasant.


How could a person look at a pond like that and remember that at the time of seeing it, they hadn’t slept for more than an hour at a time in 30 hours? And how else to soothe the wandering and overwhelmed biologist than confront her with this?


Anyways, Changi Airport had its obvious upsides and its inconvenient downsides (torrential rain outside limiting escape potential, for example) but was overall probably the best place that a person could spend seventeen hours in as a traveling sleep deprived mess. And the city tour was free, so I ought not to complain.

I flew from Changi to Perth, where I struggled at 3 am to find the correct terminal, and from Perth to Learmonth on a small place filled with oil rig workers returning from leave (while chatting, I mentioned to the most gregarious of the men that I had been in Australia for approximately three hours and nothing had tried to bite me yet; he informed me that it was mostly the people I ought to watch out for, although if I hadn’t yet seen any big hairy spiders I could be assured that they’d seen me). And finally at Learmonth, I met Tim (the Boss, the skipper, our intrepid leader, the PhD student leading our adventures).

I promise, he did ask if I’d rather not go out on the boat that day. I think he could see in my eyes that I was near-delirious with being tired, but I knew that if I stopped moving for any significant period of time I’d pass out and be jet-lagged for days as a result, so I put on my game face, we sunscreened up, and headed for the outer reef of the North West Cape. More on that and the rest of the project tomorrow- for now, I’m safe and fed and sleepy all over again. Happy to be in the company of biologists, photographers, dancers, singers, chefs, SCUBA divers, and all-around fun human beings- Kaja, Tim, Cindy and Karl, and Tim’s family whose names I unfortunately do not yet know how to spell- this is Agent Red Squirrel, signing off.

Stay Tuned!

Gentle readers, I am off to Australia tomorrow (via Singapore, long flight, long story) and will be posting updates as I can (as internet access allows). Expect fun photos of dolphins, maybe whale sharks, other South Pacific fauna, and kangaroos!

Hardly Sea Pandas

Most of the whales I saw in Haro Strait this summer were members of the Southern Resident population, fish-eaters that travel in large, social, noisy groups. 

One morning was different: we awoke to a thick fog, as usual, but the hydrophones in the main room of the Center for Whale research were silent. Whales were passing, but in complete silence and in groups of three and four, jogging along close to the rocky shore with deadly purpose. 

Even I, new to the ways of the whales of the Pacific northwest, could feel a visceral difference between this group and the playful bunch I’d seen porpoising by in the days prior. These animals, over twenty feet in length, dorsal fins slicing the surface of the water, were apex predators… and they were on the hunt. 


Transients eat marine mammals like seals and porpoises, for the most part, but have been known to take down prey as large and diverse as moose, swimming the channels between the islands, and gray and minke whales, many times the size of the transients but vulnerable to their speed and dogged pursuance. They’ve never been known to take a human in the wild- any accounts of “killer” killer whales are invariably from aquariums- but there’s something in the way they move that pricks an evolutionary nerve. You can tell- you’d be digestible.

Right off the porch, I’d been watching a harbor seal for days. He and another, smaller female had been resident on the rocky reef a few hundred feet from shore, spending afternoons lazing on the old volcanic rock, then disappearing at high tide along with the reef itself. As three sharp fins neared the place I knew the rocks to be, they split suddenly around it. A quick splash of water and the sudden appearance of diving gulls were the only obvious signs that we probably wouldn’t be seeing that seal any longer… 

Later that day we got much closer to the scene of the carnage- out on the boat, we found a few groups of transients still hunting. They must be masters of maneuvering underwater. I was almost certain they would hit the rocks, they got so close.Image

We were rooting for this girl to get away:


She was smart and stayed up on the rocks. Lucky this time… 

Good Morning, Whales!

This morning I woke leisurely, confident that the fog and the threatened rain would leave us on shore. That didn’t keep the whales from making another appearance, however- right off the deck of the Center we could see and hear a number of killer whales headed north along the shore. Dave, this incredible guy who works at the center, captains the tiny boat (the Orca) that we photograph from, and knows every single whale in this population by sight and by relation to its fellows (along with their life histories and general attitudes) marked which whales we were seeing. I’m still working on photo-ID’ing just a few of my favorite (and most easily-discernible) whales… I can’t imagine knowing them as well as he does. It’s like they’re all old friends to him, J2 an ancient matriarch who avoids the camera and K25 a young one he’s watched grow up into a “funny-looking little guy” with a smallish dorsal for a male. K20, his big sister, presumably “sucked all the growth” out of their mother, K13, because she’s as robust as any whale he’s seen. They take on so much more life and character when seen through his eyes- I’m still trying to get past the strange combination of awe and incomprehension that are always present when I see these massive animals break the surface of the water. 


I’m sure these kayakers didn’t MEAN to get so close… after all, they were putting themselves directly in the paths of not only endangered animals, but apex predators on the hunt. Who would possibly do that on purpose? Oh yeah. Maybe the girl running along the shore with camera, dog, socks, and sandals, oversized flannel shirt flapping in the breeze. Regardless, it was inspiring seeing them in so close to shore and so calm, fins breaking the surface and blowholes hissing out clouds that mingled with the incredibly dense fog.


It wasn’t long before the whale watch boats found us (well they weren’t really looking for me, just the whales…) but Marron and I didn’t mind too much when the whales and boats all moved off faster than we could follow. We were having a good shoreline wander. I took too many photos of jellyfish and liked them all, so they’ll be showing up probably in future posts. Here’s one of my favorites: 


It’s a Lion’s Mane jelly, I think- star of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and one of the biggest (if not the biggest by length) animals on the planet at full size. In cold waters, they can loose tentacles 120 feet in length. I tried to keep Marron from swimming with them and met with mild success… and mild failure. Luckily, it didn’t appear that she got stung.

She’s a good beach walk buddy, though I worry that I’m letting her get too wet. She doesn’t appear to mind:


Tomorrow’s hopefully going to be nice and clear, sunny and whale-ful. We need to photograph more of K pod, especially their males because they’re likely to be first and most impacted by food shortages. Stay posted- the next few days are likely to be busy and fruitful as the weather turns back toward summer.

Mama’s Boys

I was going to call this post “Killer Whales are Killer Wailers” and talk about their systems of hunting but then I just couldn’t do it. But real quick, these whales (southern residents) do make a lot of noise while hunting because they find and catch fish with sound (fish aren’t good listeners apparently, never learned that skill in Kindergarten). Mammal-eating whales are silent as they hunt, potentially coordinating using their saddle patches and eye spots as visual clues to their pod-mates’ movements.

Okay, but back to the title of the post: southern residents are organized roughly along matrilineal lines. That means that most groups are composed of mothers and their offspring, whether male or female. It’s fascinating listening to the researchers here, because according to them, the big males with their tall dorsal fins and wide pectorals are fairly useless at feeding themselves. The older females keep them around and help them sate their bigger appetites, in the hopes that their sons will then procreate and pass the mothers’ genes on indirectly. Sort of like lions? Sort of like humans?


Males whose mothers have died are sometimes taken on by other groups (or tag along, I’m not sure which). We’re hoping for the successful reattachment of a few of the big males to new groups of females, because there aren’t too many mature males left. They eat more, so when fish are scarce they’re the first ones to bite the metaphorical dust.


Here’s Holly Fearnbach, one of the researchers I’m working with. She’s that tiny dot hanging out of the side of the helicopter, strapped in with a construction harness and taking aerial photos of the whales to determine, basically, how fat they are this year. (They told us we were looking good on the boat from above… with only a few snarky comments on our relative widths and potential “peanut-headed” status. A peanut-headed whale is unhappily skinny- they ought to be sleek and fat all down their bodies.)

Hopefully if we find evidence that the endangered Southern Residents are getting skinny, we might be able to convince interest groups to stop people from taking so much of their food source. Having watched the fishing boats seining for the past few days and hauling in nets of salmon, I’m not sure how they’d up the protection on Chinooks without impacting fishermen to the point of bankruptcy- I don’t understand how they could exclude the big (and tasty) fish while still catching enough of the small ones to make it worth their while. It’s not an easy problem, but it would be better to start fighting for the whales’ food now…

Also, helicopters are neat.

Finally for today, I know some of you have been reading along in the hopes of super cool leaping whale shots- I don’t blame you. But because I’m on a boat that is permitted to approach the whales pretty much as close as we need to get, it would be unchivalrous of me to use photos taken within the 200m permitted range for my own personal amusement and profit (aka this blog and my facebook page). I definitely super don’t want to get anyone in trouble or mess up anyone’s research or step on any toes, so all the whale photos I post on this blog will be fairly far away. THAT BEING SAID, some of my photos may go up on the Center for Whale Research’s website, I highly recommend it- the people at the Center are constantly updating with whale encounters, awesome whale photos, and pages of ID guides and info on these animals. I personally think a membership to the website is worthwhile as well, and I can guarantee the proceeds from the memberships are well-used here.

I’m going to go try to photo-ID some more whale photos now. It’s getting slightly easier, but I’m nowhere near good enough to figure them out on the water. I’ve picked a few favorites that I’ll hopefully be able to spot next time we go out- stay posted for their stories!

Vicky Meets the Whales

Just completed my second day out on the water- apparently it’s rare to have two such full days as these past two have been, which might mean I have more time to update in the near future (forecast says rain, surprise surprise Washington…) but that I will have slightly less to say? Somehow, I doubt it. I always have something to say.

Anyways, basically this is the coolest internship ever. I’m on-site to jump in a boat and go hang out with, identify, and photograph amazing apex predators in their natural environment with (extremely patient) experts willing to answer all of my (millions of) questions about whales, their food, their habits, their moods, their habitat, and their future.


Basically, we’re out to find, identify, census, and hopefully determine the sizes of the Southern Resident population of killer whales. But let’s back up a step here:

Killer whales are widespread, from Antarctica all the way to the Aleutian islands and possibly even farther north when there’s no ice. But that’s only if you consider every killer whale (Orcinus orca) to be part of a single species. You’ll notice I call them “killer whales”- I’m mimicking the scientists here, who are of the (undoubtedly correct) opinion that killer whales are not all one species, so it’s inaccurate to refer to them all as “orca.” The Antarctic/southern hemisphere whales probably haven’t had contact with their northern relatives for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. Additionally, killer whales are further divided by their locations- northern and southern populations, close to shore or away from shore, Atlantic, Pacific, Aleutian, etc. and even further within those groups by their diet and group-specific culture. Yes, that’s right. Killer whales can be distinguished very clearly by their proprietary languages and cultures. They don’t interbreed between cultures (they’ve been described to me as “xenophobic”), look significantly different to those who know what to look for (eventually I will…) and haven’t traded genetic information in hundreds of thousands of years. In the wild, they are completely separate entities, and ought to be considered as multiple species across the globe.


In the area we’re studying, three groups of killer whales can be found: residents, transients, and offshores. Offshores are the most rarely seen and least well-known, but it’s hypothesized from the state of their worn-down teeth that they eat sharks and live mostly off of the continental shelf. (WHAT.) Transients are the big mammal-eaters, taking down harbor seals and other kinds of whales with sneaky silent group efforts, and share nearly all the same spaces as residents. Residents and transients don’t compete for space (it’s a big ocean) or food, however, because residents eat nearly exclusively large Chinook salmon.


Chinook salmon is the big stuff- the real deal, cherished by humans and whales alike. Complicating the already-sensitive reliance of the Southern Residents on these fish is the international border and fractured nature of interest groups in this area: whale-watchers want to conserve the whales, obviously, but also want close access to them; meanwhile, the US and Canada have to negotiate shares of ocean-caught salmon for their commercial and recreational fishermen; on top of this, native groups in both countries have ancestral claims to subsistence on the fish; and upstream pollution and dams and water loss are making it harder and harder for these sought-after snacks to breed every year. (In case you have never heard of salmon, they are born in high freshwater streams, make their way to the oceans to grow, then return up rapids and falls and long distances to their place of birth to generate their own offspring. Already a hard life for the lil’ guys. Or, you know, big guys…)

More on the whales themselves (their culture and language, especially) probably tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this at the end of your day:


Goodnight whales. Goodnight internet. Goodnight little trailer and goodnight to you too.

Getting There: Journey to Friday Harbor

Traveling is hard. From my arrival at SFO until finally reaching my home for the next week and a half, well over twelve hours of travel time had elapsed, including a plane ride, a shuttle bus, a ferry, and a lot of waiting around.



Luckily, SFO has a “yoga room” and I had a backpack full of books, papers, and sewing materials, and no lack of interesting travel companions. Most notably, my self-appointed guides to the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor were two guys named Maverick and Friday (presumably a fighter pilot or Senator, who in reality was a massage therapist with a deep interest in acupuncture, and his buddy, the namesake of the harbor… or maybe just coincidentally named). Hi guys!

Having braved the vagaries of fate and fortune (Alaska delayed my flight by four hours, disarranging all of the careful travel plans we had laid) and having been picked up at the ferry terminal by Holly and John, the two indescribably cool scientists who are essentially letting me tag along on their project, I finally made it to San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research. The property, owned by a man named Ken, a legend in killer whale conservation and research, is dotted with old campers and cars, trees, blackberry bushes, an ex-teepee structure, a workshop/guest house of sorts, and the center itself. Headquarters is actually Ken’s house, which has a gorgeous view and a generously shared downstairs area full of radios and computers for tracking and recording whale activity. There’s a constant hum- it might be excitement, or it might be the output from the hydrophone off of the Lime Kiln area, which records not only squeaks and clicks of traveling whales but also extremely loud propeller noises from the watercraft above. Out the windows that front the whole structure, whales and the sunset can be seen with nearly the same regularity. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration… but I’ve only been here about a day and I’ve seen 70-some whales and only one sunset, okay?)


I’m inhabiting one of the old campers for the duration of my stay- it’s an adorable silver bullet-shaped structure with two beds and a multitude of interesting cabinets and hooks and drawers. I was promised spiders, but unfortunately they haven’t turned up yet.

While I’ve got access to actual bathrooms, the adventurous spirit in me demands that at least part of the time I make use of the composting outhouse. Decorated with banana slug trails that glisten with morning dew (and also slime), it’s located just far enough down a mowed path to be out of sight of the main driveway, but not far enough to lose its sense of excitement. But if the roll of toilet paper (conveniently stashed in a Ziploc bag) is missing from the top of the path, we know better than to continue on, and thus have avoided all mishaps.

As for the whales, I’ll post more on them as soon as possible. I need to reformat some photos and I’d like to give a bit more background about the research we’re doing and the whales themselves and it won’t all fit in this post! I’m having a marvelous time.